Sleep has always been, and will likely continue to be, a bit of a mystery. We know that all people need sleep, but so far, the scientific community hasn’t been able to exactly pinpoint why we sleep. Regardless, there is definitely an agreement among researchers (and mothers) that getting enough sleep is important!
We've all experienced what it feels like when we are trying to focus on information while running on too little sleep. It feels like there is literally something standing between your brain and the information, making sure that it doesn't enter. Absorbing information is only half the battle though. Actually, if you want to be really specific, it’s only a third. Learning and memory are divided into three functions: acquisition, consolidation, and recall.
Basically, you need to receive the info, solidify the memory of it, and able to access it whenever necessary. Acquisition and recall only take place while you’re awake. Consolidation, on the other hand, “takes place during sleep through the strengthening of the neural connections that form our memories. The overall evidence suggests that adequate sleep each day is very important for learning and memory.”(1)
When it comes down to it, even if you could mange to focus on what you’re learning and acquire the information, without sleep, that information won’t be properly stored in the brain. When you need to access it, you’ll find yourself drawing a blank.
For our kids, learning is their primary responsibility for the first 18-20 years of their lives. Just think about how much they need to retain! This is why a healthy sleep schedule is so important for kids.
We all know that when we haven't gotten enough sleep, we start to get short-tempered and irritable. A study from the University of Pennsylvania showed that subjects who experienced even partial sleep deprivation reported feelings of stress, anger, sadness, and mental exhaustion. (2) This shouldn't be news to anyone. We’re all aware that we get emotional in very negative ways when we haven't gotten the sleep we need, but why?
Some research has suggested that sleep deprivation stimulates activity in the amygdala. That’s the part of the brain that’s responsible for feelings of anger and fear (among other things). This can lead to an overall sense of stress and hostility towards others. My husband will be happy to hear that there is a scientific explanation for how I act on days when I haven't gotten enough sleep!
We can see how getting enough sleep is essential to learning and emotional well-being, but what about some more tangible benefits? Aside from eating and breathing, you would be hard pressed to find anything with more health benefits than sleep.
“Sleep services all aspects of our body in one way or another: molecular, energy balance, as well as intellectual function, alertness and mood,” says Dr. Merrill Mitler, a sleep expert and neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health. “Sleep affects almost every tissue in our bodies,” Adults who regularly get between 7-9 hours of sleep see significantly lower rates of obesity, high blood pressure, stroke, infections, depression, diabetes, inflammation, hypertension, heart disease, heart attacks, and heart failure. (3)
There is no question that sleep is an essential part of a healthy, happy lifestyle. But that all changes when you have a baby, right?
You’ve brought a new life into this world and experienced the miracle of life! This emotional "high" quickly takes a turn when you learn you’re expected to sacrifice your sleep for a few years (or more!) in order to respond to your baby’s needs, which, for some reason, seem to increase in the middle of the night. I believe this is one of the greatest myths about parenthood, and one that needs to be dispelled. No one should be sacrificing sleep. Here is why: your baby needs sleep even more than you do.
When those tiny bodies are sleeping, there is a huge amount of work going on behind the scenes. Growth hormones are being secreted to help your little one gain weight and grow strong, cytokines are being produced to fight off infections and produce antibodies, all kinds of miraculous, intricate systems are working solely for your baby’s growth and development. They will continue to do so through adolescence, as long as they are given the opportunity.
Your baby was created to do all of that internal work naturally. All that’s required of your little one is to close his or her eyes and sleep.
I hear a lot of people "warning" new parents that babies don’t sleep well, and that they should expect their little ones to be waking them up all night long. For years. That's what it means to be a parent.
I would love to cut them off in the middle of their sentence and tell parents the truth. Children need adequate sleep for all of the reasons we've already discussed. If your baby is waking up 7 or 8 times a night and crying until you come into the room and rock or nurse her back to sleep, that’s not what motherhood was meant to be. What you have is a baby who has trouble sleeping, and it’s interfering with their body’s natural development. It’s no different than an ear infection or jaundice. It’s a health issue and it has a remedy!
Don't let anyone tell you to grin and bear it for the next six years. Accepting inadequate sleep in infancy leads to accepting it in adolescence and on. Eventually you end up with grown adults who don’t give sleep the priority it requires, and those serious health issues will likely follow.
To every new mother out there, I implore you, don’t accept the idea that sleep is a luxury you do not have access to. If your baby is not sleeping, address it. It’s not selfish, it’s not unrealistic, it’s necessary, and the benefits are lifelong.
(1) Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, retrieved from healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/ healthy/matters/benefits-of-sleep/learning-memory, December 18, 2007
(2) Sleep. 1997 Apr;20(4):267-77. Cumulative sleepiness, mood disturbance, and psychomotor vigilance performance decrements during a week of sleep restricted to 4-5 hours per night. Dinges DF1, Pack F, Williams K, Gillen KA, Powell JW, Ott GE, Aptowicz C, Pack AI.
(3) National Sleep Foundation, 2008 Sleep in America Poll, Summary of Findings retrieved from sleepfoundation.org/sites/default/files/2008%20POLL%20SOF.PDF